Hot Docs 2015: (T)ERROR

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It’s easy to expect familiar patterns when watching films, even with less mainstream fare. Veteran moviegoers understand the normal structures for how genres function. It’s jarring to encounter a documentary that sidesteps the conventions it sets up from the start. Despite the clever title, (T)ERROR initially appears to be a fairly standard profile of an FBI informant doing one last job to pay the bills. The situation inside his world is unique, but the story fits the anticipated narrative. Directors David Felix Sutcliffe and Lyric R. Cabral are playing for different stakes, however. The first-act story is only part of a larger discussion about our institutions’ reactions to terrorism. The result is a surprising and nuanced film that paints a bleak picture of what government officials are doing to combat apparent threats.

Saeed “Shariff” Torres is a worn-down man who’s had success as an FBI informant. It’s hardly been a glorious reign, however. When you turn on friends and are exposed as a rat, the community pushes you aside. Torres’ somber face reveals a guy who’s resigned to the role yet has lost so much because of it. He’s willing to do another job in Pittsburgh to support his son, but there’s little joy in this endeavor. It’s a far cry from the fast-paced world depicted in movies or a TV series like Homeland. Torres sits by the phone and waits for texts from his handlers about the next move. These faceless officials don’t seem interested in any shades of gray. Once they’ve identified a “person of interest”, his guilt is certain. The most chilling aspect of this film is showing how justice takes a back seat to getting the suspect.

(T)ERROR won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance as a breakout first feature and deserves the recognition. When Sutcliffe and Cabral switch the perspective to the target, it reveals the huge flaws in the system. Khalifah Al-Akili is a white Muslim who looks the part of a converted terrorist. His large beard and outspoken personality fit the profile. Al-Akili isn’t thrilled about the government, but a closer look reveals a pretty normal guy. When the filmmakers reach out to him and set up an interview, it only takes a few minutes to realize he’s hardly dangerous. The chances that Al-Akili is a terrorist are miniscule, and there’s little evidence to convict him of wrongdoing.

It’s a tricky balancing act for Sutcliffe and Cabral to film Torres and Al-Akili without the other’s knowledge. They’re walking a thin line between documenting the story and influencing it. Despite these issues, the film succeeds in raising troubling questions with no easy answers. A montage of news anchors describing “wins” in the battle against terror says plenty about the smokescreen on display. We may need these stories to feel safe after 9/11, but what is the cost? It’s a dilemma that remains long after the end credits. The real enemy isn’t clear, and the ends don’t seem to justify the means. Torres and Al-Akili are both pawns in a much larger war, and neither is the better for it.

Screens
Sunday, April 26, 9:45 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tuesday, April 28, 4:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Sunday, May 3, 11:30 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.